with H. Allen Orr and Ruixun Zhang
We propose an evolutionary framework for optimal portfolio growth theory in which investors subject to environmental pressures allocate their wealth between two assets. By considering both absolute wealth and relative wealth between investors, we show that different investor behaviors survive in different environments. When investors maximize their relative wealth, the Kelly criterion is optimal only under certain conditions, which are identified. The initial relative wealth plays a critical role in determining the deviation of optimal behavior from the Kelly criterion regardless of whether the investor is myopic across a single time period or maximizing wealth over an infinite horizon. We relate these results to population genetics, and discuss testable consequences of these findings using experimental evolution.
with Alexander Remorov, Journal of Financial Markets 34 (2017) 1–15
Stop-loss strategies are commonly used by investors to reduce their holdings in risky assets if prices or total wealth breach certain pre- specified thresholds. We derive closed-form expressions for the impact of stop-loss strategies on asset returns that are serially correlated, regime switching, and subject to transaction costs. When applied to a large sample of individual U.S. stocks, we show that tight stop-loss strategies tend to under-perform the buy-and-hold policy in a mean-variance frame work due to excessive trading costs. Outperformance is possible for stocks with sufficiently high serial correlation in returns. Certain strategies succeed at reducing downside risk, but not substantially.
Economic Policy Review 22(2016), 17–42.
Culture is a potent force in shaping individual and group behavior, yet it has received scant attention in the context of financial risk management and the recent financial crisis. I present a brief overview of the role of culture according to psychologists, sociologists, and economists, and then present a specific framework for analyzing culture in the context of financial practices and institutions in which three questions are answered: (1) What is culture?; (2) Does it matter?; and (3) Can it be changed? I illustrate the utility of this framework by applying it to five concrete situations—Long Term Capital Management; AIG Financial Products; Lehman Brothers and Repo 105; Société Générale’s rogue trader; and the SEC and the Madoff Ponzi scheme—and conclude with a proposal to change culture via “behavioral risk management.”
with Ruixun Zhang, Thomas J. Brennan, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111(2014), 17777–17782.
Risk aversion is one of the most basic assumptions of economic behavior, but few studies have addressed the question of where risk preferences come from and why they differ from one individual to the next. Here, we propose an evolutionary explanation for the origin of risk aversion. In the context of a simple binary-choice model, we show that risk aversion emerges by natural selection if reproductive risk is systematic (i.e., correlated across individuals in a given generation). In contrast, risk neutrality emerges if reproductive risk is idiosyncratic (i.e., uncorrelated across each given generation). More generally, our framework implies that the degree of risk aversion is determined by the stochastic nature of reproductive rates, and we show that different statistical properties lead to different utility functions. The simplicity and generality of ourmodel suggest that these implications are primitive and cut across species, physiology, and genetic origins.
with Ruixun Zhang, Thomas J. Brennan, PLOS One 9 (2014)
Despite many compelling applications in economics, sociobiology, and evolutionary psychology, group selection is still one of the most hotly contested ideas in evolutionary biology. Here we propose a simple evolutionary model of behavior and show that what appears to be group selection may, in fact, simply be the consequence of natural selection occurring in stochastic environments with reproductive risks that are correlated across individuals. Those individuals with highly correlated risks will appear to form “groups”, even if their actions are, in fact, totally autonomous, mindless, and, prior to selection, uniformly randomly distributed in the population. This framework implies that a separate theory of group selection is not strictly necessary to explain observed phenomena such as altruism and cooperation. At the same time, it shows that the notion of group selection does captures a unique aspect of evolution—selection with correlated reproductive risk–that may be sufficiently widespread to warrant a separate term for the phenomenon.
with Kathryn M. Kaminski, Journal of Financial Markets 18 (2014), 234-254.
We propose a simple analytical framework to measure the value added or subtracted by stoploss rules—predetermined policies that reduce a portfolio’s exposure after reaching a certain threshold of cumulative losses—on the expected return and volatility of an arbitrary portfolio strategy. Using daily futures price data, we provide an empirical analysis of stop-loss policies applied to a buy-and-hold strategy using index futures contracts. At longer sampling frequencies, certain stop-loss policies can increase expected return while substantially reducing volatility, consistent with their objectives in practical applications.
Handbook of Systemic Risk, edited by J.P. Fouque and J. Langsam
Abstract Historical accounts of financial crises suggest that fear and greed are the common denominators of these disruptive events: periods of unchecked greed eventually lead to excessive leverage and unsustainable asset-price levels, and the inevitable collapse results in unbridled fear, which must subside before any recovery is possible. The cognitive neurosciences may provide some new insights into this boom/bust pattern through a deeper understanding of the dynamics of emotion and human behavior. In this chapter, I describe some recent research from the neurosciences literature on fear and reward learning, mirror neurons, theory of mind, and the link between emotion and rational behavior. By exploring the neuroscientific basis of cognition and behavior, we may be able to identify more fundamental drivers of financial crises, and improve our models and methods for dealing with them.
Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 157 (2013), 269-280.
Rational economic behavior in which individuals maximize their own self-interest is only one of many possible types of behavior that arise from natural selection. Given an initial population of individuals, each assigned a purely arbitrary behavior with respect to a binary choice problem, and assuming that offspring behave identically to their parents, only those behaviors linked to reproductive success will survive, and less successful behaviors will disappear exponentially fast. This framework yields a single evolutionary explanation for the origin of several behaviors that have been observed in organisms ranging from bacteria to humans, including risk-sensitive foraging, risk aversion, loss aversion, probability matching, randomization, and diversification. The key to understanding which types of behavior are more likely to survive is how behavior affects reproductive success in a given population's environment. From this perspective, intelligence is naturally defined as behavior that increases the likelihood of reproductive success, and bounds on rationality are determined by physiological and environmental constraints.
What’s the Use of Economics?: Teaching the Dismal Science After the Crisis, London Publishing Partnership.
This is a pre-conference essay prepared for 'What Post-Crisis Changes Does the Economics Discipline Need?', a conference organized by Diane Coyle and Enlightenment Economics, the Bank of England, and the U.K. Government Economic Service on 7 February 2012. In this essay, I trace the origins of 'theory envy' to Paul Samuelson and the mathematization of economics over the past half century, and consider its implications for how economics should be taught. Although this research program has produced many genuine breakthroughs in economics, any virtue can become a vice when taken to an extreme, and the recent financial crisis has given us an opportunity to reinvent our field. One innovation is to teach economics not from an axiomatic and technique-oriented perspective, but by posing challenges that can only be addressed through economic logic. Instead of starting microeconomics with the consumer’s problem of maximizing utility subject to a budget constraint, begin by challenging students to predict the impact of a gasoline tax on the price of gasoline, or asking them to explain why diamonds are so much more expensive than water, despite the fact that the latter is critical for survival unlike the former. Instead of starting macroeconomics with national income accounts, begin with the question of how to measure and manage the wealth of nations, or why inflation can be so disruptive to economic growth. Without the proper institutional, political, and historical context in which to interpret economic models, constrained optimization methods and fixed-point existence proofs have much less meaning and are more likely to give rise to theory envy. However, when students understand the “why” of their course of study, even the most complex mathematical tools can be mastered and are almost always applied more meaningfully.
Financial Analysts Journal, 68 (2012), 18-29
In the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis (AMH) intelligent but fallible investors learn from and adapt to changing economic environments. This implies that markets are not always efficient, but are usually competitive and adaptive, varying in their degree of efficiency as the environment and investor population change over time. The AMH has several implications including the possibility of negative risk premia, alpha converging to beta, and the importance of macro factors and risk budgeting in asset-allocation policies.